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Memory of Partition

By Ravinder Kaur

How is Partition of India and Pakistan remembered by millions of refugees who were
forced to leave their homes amidst raging violence?

The 1947 Partition displaced nearly 20 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in northern
India and claimed ½ a million lives in, what is called, the world’s largest single episode
of forced migration. For many decades, the personal memories of the survivors of
Partition violence and displacement remained inside the private domain – to be shared
and inherited within the families as a personal legacy. It is only in the recent years that a
large number of survivors and their descendants have begun narrating their memories and
personal experiences publicly. A long silence of the Partition survivors in the Partition
history stands in sharp contrast to the history of World War II and Holocaust where
survivors finds ample space to narrate ‘what happened to them’.

This absence of survivors’ narratives, till a decade ago, is rooted in the very nature of
Partition violence where there was no clear distinction between ‘victims’ and
‘perpetrators’. The three main groups – Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs – were victims where
they were in minority and perpetrators wherever they were the dominant group. The pain
and trauma of individual suffering – be it Hindu, Muslim or Sikh – was often lost in the
larger blame game of communal violence. The newspapers in 1947 often reported
violence caused by incoming refugees who would attempt to ‘settle scores’ of their
personal or communal loss by attacking the minorities in a given locality. The new
violence would then stimulate a fresh wave of migration across the India-Pakistan border.

The explicitly sexual nature of the Partition violence is another plausible explanation of
this silence. The personal accounts are filled with incidents of brutal rapes, cutting and
slicing of sexual organs, branding women with the names of their rapists and slogans of
‘Long Live India/Pakistan’ in an attempt to nationalize and ‘own’ women’s bodies. The
notions of shame, social stigma, fear and loss of honor that usually characterize sexual
violence are at work in the Partition memory as well. The memory of such gruesome
events is only hesitantly narrated in the public domain even today. Therefore, the fact that
a large number of people have begun narrating their memories is remarkable.

Ravinder Kaur is the author of “Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants
of Delhi”, 2007, Oxford University Press. She teaches at Institute for Society and
Globalization, Roskilde University, Denmark.